In past years, I tried to distance myself from ‘liberals’ by describing myself as ‘progressive.’ It was admittedly a middle ground between being a liberal, which I associated with being a comforter of the established order while opting for humane policies at the margins, and being a ‘radical’ or ‘leftist,’ which struck me as terms of self-exile outside domains of relevant discourse.
My basic objection to liberals and their agenda was that they swallowed ‘the system’ whole while excusing themselves by claiming the mantle of realism and moral concern. In my view, American structures of militarism and capitalism needed to be transformed in socialist directions if humanity was to have a positive future, and this is what the liberals I knew didn’t want to hear about, believing that such structural criticisms would hand the government over to Republicans by alienating the mainstream and thus be a prescription for the self-destruction of the Democratic Party, and political darkness.
In my lifetime there never was a progressive presidential candidate in my sense, although George McGovern came close, as did Gene McCarthy, and their political failures, were often cited as proof that the practical wisdom of the liberal position should be heeded. Whenever I acknowledged having voted for the third party candidate, Ralph Nader, in the 2000 elections, the best that I could hope for from my liberal friends was scorn, followed by the allegation of irresponsibility, pointing out that the Florida outcome would likely have gone Al Gore’s way if Nader’s name had not been on the ballot, and attracted the vote of some 90,000 wayward citizens. And so the misery of the George W. Bush years would have been avoided, and in its place the lesser misery of Gore would have been experienced.
With these considerations in mind, I am startled by the amusing controversy between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as to whether Clinton is entitled to claim the mantle of ‘progressive.’ What seems odd and unexpected is that both candidates competing for support among Democrats, avoid any reference to being a ‘liberal’ and both proudly claim to be a ‘progressive.’ Actually, when challenged, Clinton does behave like a liberal, claiming realism is on her side, and dismissing Sanders transformative proposals (on health care, college tuition, wages, tax reform) as not achievable.
In contrast, she bases her appeal on a commitment to finish what Obama started and a record of getting things done. In other words, she shares the abstract language of Sanders, but when it comes down to it, her promised contributions will be limited to the margins, identifying her in ways characteristic of her long political career—as a liberal. In fairness I suppose both candidates and their minders have made linguistic calculations. In Sanders’ case it is to run away as far as possible from being called ‘a socialist’ and for Clinton it seems to be wanting to avoid the deadend boredom of being classified as ‘a liberal.’
If I had to associate the word liberal with a particular set of views, I would probably select Nicholas Kristof, a regular opinion page columnist for the New York Times, as exemplifying the liberal worldview. And sure enough, in a true liberal mode Kristof jumped to Clinton’s defense with a condescending pat on Barry Sander’s back along the way. Under the headline “2 Questions For Bernie Sanders” [NYT, February 4, 2016]
Kristof puts forward the usual liberal ‘higher wisdom’: first, Sanders’ sweeping proposals would never get enacted in the real world of Washington politics, and secondly, nominating a self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ would alienate American voters to such an extent as virtually to assure the election of a dangerous Republican reactionary such as Ted Cruz. There is no doubt that the current makeup of Congress would block the policymaking ambitions of any Democrat who lands in the White House, whether Clinton or Sanders, but if this is the case then the election is almost as irrelevant as many young people have believed in the past, at least until Obama and now Sanders came along. This cynicism is itself dangerously simplistic as a Democrat as president at least can be counted on to do less harm.
No sensible person would doubt that these practical considerations are serious concerns, but they must be balanced against the deep structural deformation long associated with neoliberal capitalism and geopolitical militarism. For too long these deeper maladies of American politics have been swept under the rug in deference to the imperatives of practical politics, and Kristof never dares even entertains an assessment of why it might finally make sense to give up on the liberal option.
In my view, Bernie Sanders is a true progressive because he has the courage to confront structurally Wall Street America, although he can claim only the weak form of progressivism as he has yet to confront Pentagon America. Sanders contends that his movement is a call for ‘revolution’ but if that is the claim then to be fully credible it must also call into question the American Global Domination Project, involving the network of foreign bases, naval supremacy throughout the world’s oceans, nuclear modernization program, and the ambitious militarizing plans for the management of space. In the meantime, while impatient for the revolution needed in America, I greatly prefer a true progressive to a disguised liberal, and so did 84% of the young voters who backed Sanders over Clinton in Iowa.
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